Lesson Plans: Grades 3-5

The Preamble to the Constitution: How Do You Make a More Perfect Union?

Tools

The Lesson

Introduction

Constitution thumb

... little more than the shadow without the substance"
-George Washington on the Articles of Confederation

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union ..."
-From The Preamble to the Constitution

With the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, the U.S. firmly established itself as an independent nation. Six years later, in 1789, George Washington was elected the first President, initiating the form of government, based on the Constitution, that we recognize today.

Before 1789, the young nation had been ruled by the Articles of Confederation, written in 1781 in reaction to years of British rule. By 1787, however, it was clear that a more perfect Union was required; while protecting the independence of member states, the Articles of Confederation did not describe the powers of a federal chief executive or a judicial system. The creation of our Constitution and present form of government was informed by these and other considerations that arose during the years of the Confederation.

Archival materials and other resources available through EDSITEment-reviewed websites can help your students begin to understand why the Founders felt a need to establish a more perfect Union and how they proposed to accomplish such a weighty task.

Guiding Questions

  • How does the language of the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution reflect historical events and the goals the Founders had for the future?
  • What does the Preamble mean?

Learning Objectives

  • Explain the purposes of the U.S. Constitution as identified in the Preamble to the Constitution
  • Identify fundamental values and principles as they are expressed in the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution

Preparation Instructions

Recommended reading from American Memory

  • Brill, Marlene Targ. Let Women Vote! Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1996.
  • Ciment, James. Law and Order. NY: Chelsea House Publishers, 1995.
  • Fritz, Jean. The Great Little Madison. NY: G.P. Putnam and Sons, 1989.
  • Grant, R.G. The American Revolution. NY: Thomson Learning, 1995.
  • Smith, Carter, ed. The Revolutionary War: A Sourcebook on Colonial America. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1991.
  • Spier, Peter. We the People: The Constitution of the United States of America. NY: Doubleday, 1987.
  • Weber, Michael. Our Congress. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1994.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Revolutionary Needs

When the American Revolution succeeded, what did the colonists need to do? As stated on America's Story, a link from the EDSITEment resource American Memory, "When the Colonies declared their independence from Britain, they had a flag and an army. What they lacked was a government."

What are the responsibilities of independence?

Pose a hypothetical situation to the class. Imagine that, on a field trip to Tahiti, the students became stranded—without any adults and with little hope of being rescued in the foreseeable future—on a very hospitable tropical island. Start with a brief, general discussion about such matters as: How will you work together? How will you create rules? How will you deal with people who group members think are not following the rules?

Then, either brainstorming as a class or working in small groups (if desired, groups can be assigned the questions below), make lists of the things the group would have to consider in developing its own government. Help the students by asking these guiding questions, which relate to phrases from the Preamble (indicated here for the teacher and to be discussed with the students in Lesson 4):

  1. How will you make sure that anyone who feels unfairly treated will have a place to air complaints? (establishing justice)
  2. How will you make sure that people can have peace and quiet? (ensuring domestic tranquility)
  3. How will you make sure that group members will help if outsiders arrive who threaten your group? (providing for the common defense)
  4. How will you make sure that the improvements you make on the island (such as shelters, fireplaces and the like) will be used fairly? (promoting the general welfare)
  5. How will you make sure that group members will be free to do what they want as long as it doesn't hurt anyone else? (securing the blessing of liberty to ourselves)
  6. How will you make sure that the rules and organizations you develop protect future generations? (securing the blessing of liberty to our posterity)

If the students worked in groups, allow time for sharing.

Now share with the class the political cartoon The Horse America, Throwing His Master and its title, available through a link from the EDSITEment resource American Memory.

What do the students observe in the cartoon? What is the cartoonist saying? What was happening in 1779?

Encourage class discussion. Having just released themselves from Britain's monarchy, what would the colonists fear? Judging from some of the complaints the colonists had against Britain, what might some of their concerns be for any future government? As in the hypothetical situation on the desert island, what decisions would the colonists have to make about forming a new government out of 13 colonies, which, until 1776, had basically been running themselves independently?

Activity 2. What the Preamble Means

Make sure every student has in hand a copy of the Preamble to the Constitution. The text is available through the EDSITEment resource The Avalon Project at the Yale Law School.

Read the Preamble to the class. Tell students their goal is to learn what the Preamble means.

Now review the ideas the students had for protections in the deserted island discussion of Lesson 1. Relate each point to the appropriate phrase in the Preamble, as shown:

  1. How will you make sure that anyone who feels unfairly treated will have a place to air complaints? (establishing justice)
  2. How will you make sure that people can have peace and quiet? (insuring domestic tranquility)
  3. How will you make sure that group members will help if outsiders arrive who threaten your group? (providing for the common defense)
  4. How will you make sure that the improvements you make on the island (such as shelters, fireplaces and the like) will be used fairly? (promoting the general welfare)
  5. How will you make sure that group members will be free to do what they want as long as it doesn't hurt anyone else? (securing the blessing of liberty to ourselves)
  6. How will you make sure that the rules and organizations you develop protect future generations? (securing the blessing of liberty to our posterity)

Continue by sharing with students the lyrics for "The Preamble," from the television series "Schoolhouse Rock," created by American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. You can find the lyrics on the Internet; just do a search for "Schoolhouse Rock" on a search engine such as google.com or yahoo.com.

Discuss what the students think the words of the Preamble mean. Then divide the class into six small groups. Assign each group a phrase from the Preamble to interpret and provide each group with documentary evidence of what the phrase means (sources listed below). It's the job of group members to share the document they were given and to offer their own interpretation of what their assigned phrase means.

Group 1: Establishing Justice
Print out the abstract for Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections from the EDSITEment-reviewed website Oyez, Oyez, Oyez: Supreme Court WWW Resource. Students should read the facts of the case and the question presented and respond to the following:

  1. For a case to arrive at the Supreme Court, it must be difficult to decide. What good points are there on both sides of the case Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections? It costs money to hold an election. The tax being charged at Virginia polling places was used by counties for expenses such as conducting voting and by the state to support public education. The maximum tax was only $1.50. Shouldn't anyone be happy to pay such a small amount for the privilege of voting and to help pay for the voting process? Would it be fair to ask people who do not vote to pay for voting through some other tax, such as a tax on items you buy at the store (a sales tax)? On the other hand, if you have no money at all, is that a good reason to keep you from voting?
  2. What do you think the court decided?
  3. Another word for justice is fairness. What happens in our country to make sure that things are fair? What does establishing justice mean?

After the exercise is completed, share with students the actual outcome (conclusion) of the case.

Group 2: Ensuring Domestic Tranquility
Print out Burson v. Freeman — Abstract from the EDSITEment-reviewed website Oyez, Oyez, Oyez: Supreme Court WWW Resource.

Students should read the facts of the case and respond to the following:

  1. For a case to arrive at the Supreme Court, it must be difficult to decide. What good points are there on both sides of this case? Shouldn't voters be able to walk to the polling place in peace and quiet (such peace and quite could be considered one kind of domestic tranquility) without someone trying to get them to vote for their candidate? On the other hand, don't we have the right to talk to people about candidates we want elected? What do you think the court decided?
  2. What does it mean to "insure domestic tranquility"? How did the case Burson v. Freeman ensure domestic tranquility"? What other examples of domestic tranquility can you list?

After the exercise is completed, share with students the actual outcome (conclusion) of the case.

Group 3: Providing for the Common Defense
Print out the last page of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's request to the Congress that the United States declare war on Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor from the EDSITEment-reviewed website The Digital Classroom, and the Uncle Sam Recruiting Poster, available via a link from the EDSITEment resource American Memory. Students should review the documents and respond to the following:

  1. Why did the President have to ask Congress to declare war? Why didn't he declare war himself? Why does it make sense to require the President to ask Congress? How does that help provide for the "common" defense?
  2. What is the point of the Uncle Sam poster?
  3. How does our government today "provide for the common defense"?
  4. What does "provide for the common defense" mean?

Group 4: Promoting the General Welfare
In 1906, no one was required to inspect meat that was sold to the American public. Public reaction to Upton Sinclair's book The Jungle was a major factor in the passage of the 1907 Meat Inspection Act, which established a system of meat inspection that lasted until July 1996, when the federal government announced new rules requiring more scientifically advanced methods of meat inspection.

Print out the letter from author Upton Sinclair to President Theodore Roosevelt (March 10, 1906) concerning conditions in the meat packing industry from the EDSITEment-reviewed website The Digital Classroom. Students should read the letter and respond to the following:

  1. Shouldn't the companies that sell meat inspect the meat they sell? Why should the government have a system for inspecting meat? How do meat inspections "promote the general welfare"?
  2. What else does the government do to promote the general welfare?
  3. What does "promoting the general welfare" mean?

Group 5: Securing the Blessing of Liberty to Ourselves
Print out Wisconsin v. Yoder — Abstract from the EDSITEment-reviewed website Oyez, Oyez, Oyez: Supreme Court WWW Resource and the poster celebrating the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, available via a link from the EDSITEment resource American Memory (Click here for the text of all Constitutional Amendments, including the Fifteenth Amendment.) Students should review the documents carefully and respond to the following:

  1. For a case to arrive at the Supreme Court, it must be difficult to decide. What good points are there on both sides of this case? Why do some people believe parents should be required to send their children to school? On the other hand, shouldn't parents be able to raise their kids the way they want?
  2. What do you think the Supreme Court decided in this case?
  3. Look up "liberty" in the dictionary. What does liberty mean? What might happen if everybody felt s/he had the liberty to do what ever s/he wanted no matter what the consequences? When, why and how should liberties ever be restrained ... and when should they not be?
  4. What does it mean to "secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves"?
  5. What is being celebrated in the poster? How did the Fifteenth Amendment secure the blessings of liberty to those who had been enslaved? That's an easy question, but here's a hard one: How did the Fifteenth Amendment secure the blessings of liberty to those who had NOT been enslaved?

Share the actual outcome (conclusion) of the case.

Group 6: Securing the Blessing of Liberty to Our Posterity
Print out the photograph of coal breaker boys from the EDSITEment resource American Memory. (Note to the teacher: An image using less memory is available by searching American Memory for the exact phrase "Coal breaker boys." Students should review the image carefully and respond to the following:

  1. Wouldn't some children your age be tempted to leave school and take up a job if they could? What's wrong with that?
  2. Why are there no more coal breaker boys?
  3. The Constitution is still being changed with amendments. Our country's laws are still being changed today. How does improving the rules today help secure the blessings of liberty for people in the future (that's what "posterity" means)? Can you think of some other ways the government makes sure people in the future will have liberty?
  4. What does "securing the blessing of liberty to our posterity" mean?
Activity 3. We the People

After much debate and compromise, our present Constitution was adopted. Share with the class an image of the Constitution from the EDSITEment-reviewed website The Digital Classroom.

Students will not be able to read the fine print, and that's fine. What students will easily see are the words "We the People" at the top of the page and the heading for Article I a short way down the page. Why did the Founders choose to begin the document with the words

"We the People..." and to make them so large? How is it different from the opening of the Articles of Confederation (below)?

To all to whom these Presents shall come, we the undersigned Delegates of the States affixed to our Names send greeting.

Articles of Confederation and perpetual Union between the states of New Hampshire, Massachusetts-bay Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.

The short introduction the students saw in the Constitution, prior to Article I, is called the Preamble. A preamble is a preliminary statement, especially the introduction to a formal document that serves to explain its purpose.

Review the significance of beginning the document with "We the People...." Review why the Articles of Confederation created a need for a more perfect union. Now students are ready to take a closer look at the phrases in the remainder of the Preamble.

Activity 4. An Imperfect Union

In the hypothetical situation in Activity 1, did the class arrive at a system that determined simply that each person could decide for her or himself what s/he wanted to do? Probably not. Though ideas may have differed on how to deal with being stranded, every idea probably involved people working together to some degree through compromise.

For the most part, the Articles of Confederation, adopted in 1777 and ratified in 1781, allowed each state to do what it wanted! Important decisions had to be agreed upon by the states unanimously, which was nearly impossible. Such protections were a response to the fear of a strong central government (such as a monarchy). Protecting the rights of states was a primary concern of those who drafted the Articles. A federal government was established, but that government had very little power to compel states to do anything such as pay taxes, send representatives to Congress, or help another state.

As explained on the kid-friendly Ben's Guide to Government for Kids, a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed website Internet Public Library:

The Articles proved to be a weak system of government. The federal government only had the power to declare war and manage foreign affairs. Under the Articles, each state worked independently. Chaos erupted from this system of government. Something had to be done, but the road ahead proved to be a bumpy one. While Americans were glad to be free of British rule, they were used to being sovereign and wanted to stay that way.

Share with the class these two incidents that demonstrate the problems inherent in the Articles of Confederation:

  • Where Is Everybody?
    Under the Articles of Confederation, the federal government had very little power to compel states to act. It was very difficult to get representatives from the states to show up at meetings. This story, available on America's Library, a link from the EDSITEment resource American Memory, shows how the U.S. almost failed to sign the Treaty of Paris, which formally ended the American Revolution and granted to the new country land all the way to the Mississippi River.
  • Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, for Tuesday, June 27, 1786
    The first and last sentence of page 366 (locate by using the Find function of your browser to locate "Page 366"—from the entry for June 27, 1786, available on the EDSITEment resource American Memory), reveal that by 1786, the U.S. was virtually out of money. Having just fought a long and difficult war, the federal government had incurred great debt. However, Congress did not have the power to compel states to contribute money to the national treasury. The Union might go broke because the federal government had no sure way of raising money!
Activity 5. The Illustrated Preamble

Assign each group to create its own picture book version of the Preamble. Each phrase should be written on its own page with an appropriate illustration. If desired, the group can add an introduction and/or conclusion (about a paragraph long each) for their book.

Give the groups an opportunity to share their books with the class.

Technically savvy classes could use programs such as PowerPoint or HyperCard to create slide versions of the assignment, which could then be posted online.

An alternative way to organize this lesson would be to assign a page to each student group, creating a single class book.

Extending The Lesson

  • Students can interview parents or grandparents to discuss how laws and concepts of justice have changed in their lifetimes. The EDSITEment lesson plan "Listening to History" introduces students to the experience of capturing oral history.
  • Students might be interested in looking through newspaper editorial pages and magazines for political cartoons. Collect cartoons the students like. Students can try to draw their own cartoons with a message. They can also locate historical cartoons by searching for the word "cartoon" on the EDSITEment resource American Memory.
  • Through the EDSITEment-reviewed websites Congresslink and Oyez, students can find out what bills are in Congress today and what cases are on the docket of the Supreme Court.
  • Students with a historical bent might be interested in researching Shay's Rebellion, an incident that greatly dramatized the need for improving upon the Articles of Confederation.
  • Students could create a documentary timeline showing how our Union has continued to become more perfect. Students can download images of documents and photographs that show improvements in our country (women securing the vote, for example). A good place to start would be the American Memory Timeline.
Selected EDSITEment Websites

Other Resources

Recommended reading from American Memory

  • Brill, Marlene Targ. Let Women Vote! Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1996.
  • Ciment, James. Law and Order. NY: Chelsea House Publishers, 1995.
  • Fritz, Jean. The Great Little Madison. NY: G.P. Putnam and Sons, 1989.
  • Grant, R.G. The American Revolution. NY: Thomson Learning, 1995.
  • Smith, Carter, ed. The Revolutionary War: A Sourcebook on Colonial America. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1991.
  • Spier, Peter. We the People: The Constitution of the United States of America. NY: Doubleday, 1987.
  • Weber, Michael. Our Congress. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1994.

The Basics

Time Required

8-9 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Common Core
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Politics and Citizenship
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > U.S. Constitution
Skills
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Discussion
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Oral presentation skills
  • Textual analysis
  • Using primary sources
  • Writing skills

Resources

Student Resources
Media